Pastors are not called to be the captain of the ship, said Pastor Charles Swindoll. Rather, their job is to hold an oar and row.
"You and I are under-rowers," the long-time preacher told thousands of pastors Tuesday. "We don't steer the ship. We're not responsible for its ultimate destination. Our job is to row."
It's what the Apostle Paul called himself and the other apostles as recorded in the New Testament, Swindoll cited.
Exhorting fellow ministers to be servant leaders, Swindoll stressed, "You are an under-rower and a steward and you're nothing more than that. There's not a celebrity among us, not a skipper of the ship among us."
Swindoll, who has been in ministry for 50 years, was the anticipated speaker at the two-day "Refuel" conference at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. He was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the church's pastor, Jonathan Falwell, who was greatly impacted by Swindoll's teachings.
Among Protestant pastors, Swindoll is considered the second most influential living preacher, after evangelist Billy Graham, according to a recent LifeWay Research survey.
The 75-year-old pastor has no plans of retiring.
"One of my great goals in life is to live long enough to where I am in the pulpit, preaching my heart out, and I die on the spot, my chin hits the pulpit – boom! – and I'm down and out. What a way to die!" he shared to laughter.
Challenging pastors against pursuing the American dream of retirement, Swindoll said, "I don't want to hear one of you say 'I'm living for the day I'm going to retire.' A pastor doesn't retire."
"We got to keep that oar in the water," he noted. "When they think of you let them remember you kept your oar in the water."
Offering a simple philosophy of ministry to pastors at this week's conference, the prominent preacher said, "Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are."
"One of the worst things you can give to your people is someone you're not," he said, as he commended Falwell for stepping into the role of lead pastor of Thomas Road Baptist and not trying to be anyone else (such as his father, Jerry Falwell) but himself.
Swindoll also stood at the pulpit Tuesday to warn fellow ministers.
While rowing on the bottom level of a big galley ship, pastors will go through a battle with temptations.
"It (temptation) comes back again and again ... and strikes you ... little by little. It finds that one area that's not defended and it moves in closer," Swindoll explained.
One of the major temptations pastors will face is a "spirit of entitlement" when they begin to think "It's about time I get a little respect" or "I wonder what life would be like if I rowed on the next deck above me."
He continued, "You even think 'I'd love to be the one being served those meals because I've been so hard at work doing it for others."
Swindoll expressed his disdain for such thinking.
"This is, for lack of a better word, self-pity. It is the most reprehensible of the sins among the under-rowers and the stewards," he said. "You start feeling sorry for the sacrifices."
"I'm here today to warn you: I want you to watch out for the adversary," he said. "Guard yourself from any spirit of entitlement. Restrain any and all subtle temptation to gain attention or to find ways to promote yourself."
Swindoll left the crowd with a poem, summing up his address:
"Row, row, row your boat
Never, ever quit
Loyally, faithfully serving Christ
The captain of your ship."